The Tennessee Conservative [By Adelia Kirchner] –
“If a high-ranking TN State Senator has a lobbyist wife who gets paid $200k+ annually to deliver billions in corporate welfare from TN taxpayers to liberal corporations – and if that money lands in the member’s household bank account, is that a conflict of interest?” asked a recent poll conducted by The Tennessee Conservative on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Within just 24 hours poll results showed that out of 737 participants 98% responded “Yes” and only 2% responded “No.”
Corporate welfare is by no means a new concept in the realm of state politics or politics in general, especially when many GOP lawmakers are business owners themselves and a variety of lobbyists maintain a heightened level of access to lawmakers.
But the optics certainly don’t get any better when a lawmaker’s own spouse lobbies for corporate welfare.
This is the case with Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chair Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson-District 11) and his wife, Nicole Oborne Watson, who works with the Holland & Knight lobbying team as a partner and policy advisor.
Sen. Watson was also Chair of the Finance Committee back in 2022, when Nicole Watson was part of the lobbying team called Tennessee Football Inc. that successfully pushed for state legislators to approve $500 million in state bonds to fund a new Tennessee Titans Stadium.
Although Sen. Watson insisted at the time that he and his wife follow all the rules and do not even discuss legislation with each other, nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause stated that this type of nepotism, if not always illegal, still “looks and smells bad to the public.”
Sen. Watson told the media that he was actually opposed to Lee’s budget request for the Titans stadium and voted against it until he had to vote for the finalized appropriations bill.
Even if Nicole Watson does not lobby her husband, critics have raised concerns that other lawmakers may allow Nicole Watson more access and influence than just your average lobbyist because of her connection to Sen. Watson.
“It defies logic to say that you can just assure people – don’t worry it doesn’t influence me – and have people feel that passes the test,” said Beth Rotman with Common Cause.
When it comes to corporate welfare itself, many feel that it allows the government to put its hand in the private sector, using taxpayer dollars, often with no verifiable return on investment for taxpayers.
Many see corporate welfare as taking advantage of small business owners and taxpayers, using their hard-earned money to grow large corporations that don’t typically share the more conservative values of the average Tennessean.
Sen. Watson and his wife being in a position to enrich their personal assets by promoting corporate welfare has also cultivated a feeling of unfairness among some.
“SO many politicians do this…of course, it’s not illegal, how could they resist?” wrote one X commenter. “We need to put in safeguards around this.”
Without concrete measures in place to prevent this type of situation, it’s difficult for Tennesseans to feel that their representatives are being entirely transparent about their intentions.
To combat corporate welfare schemes in the future, the Tennessee Senate could update their ethics policy to eliminate familial conflicts of interest and nepotism in the General Assembly.
Other state lawmakers have attempted to curb lobbying transparency issues, like Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma-District 16) who proposed legislation in 2022 that would’ve prohibited family members of legislators from lobbying the General Assembly if it had become law.
“There are going to be those who question everything you do, that you’re only doing what you’re doing to promote yourself or to aggrandize your own value,” she said at the time. “And I think most of us […] we’re there to serve the people of Tennessee and serve our districts.”
About the Author: Adelia Kirchner is a Tennessee resident and reporter for the Tennessee Conservative. Currently the host of Subtle Rampage Podcast, she has also worked for the South Dakota State Legislature and interned for Senator Bill Hagerty’s Office in Nashville, Tennessee.
You can reach Adelia at email@example.com.